MAIN Street in Rohtak, 70 km northwest of Delhi, is a typical bustle of snack-food stalls, and clothing, books and medical stores. With just one prominent exception — a Subway outlet, the only one here.
Thursday is Raksha Bandhan, and a busy day but the franchise owner, normally a fixture at the store that opened six months ago, isn’t around. Sachin Malik is busy elsewhere. He has been up since the previous night greeting family members, neighbours, wellwishers and media. They have been arriving at the family home in Sector 4 since 3:30 am, when his sister Sakshi Malik won a bronze medal at the Rio Olympics.
The medal was India’s first at the Games and the first by an Indian woman wrestler at the Olympics. “It was Sakshi’s idea to start the restaurant. She had travelled a lot and felt there was a business opportunity. So two years ago, when she knew I was looking to start a business of my own, she made the suggestion. Also, she really liked sandwiches,” says Sachin, three years older than his 22-year-old sister.
Sakshi’s contribution did not end with the suggestion. “It’s a long process to be allotted a franchise. When they got to know that I was the brother of Sakshi Malik, who had won a silver in the Commonwealth Games, it made things easier,” he says. “The investment was close to Rs 70 lakh. I had to take a home loan, the rest came from the family.
Sakshi, of course, contributed a lot. Was a small town like Rohtak ready for a international restaurant? It took me a year to plan and assess the possibilities. Sakshi was the one who pushed me,” he says.
But then Sakshi was always one who had dreams bigger than what a girl from a small town with a modest family background in Haryana could reasonably hope to have.
At their home, family members say Sakshi was always meant to be a wrestler. While mother Sudesh was an anganwadi supervisor and father Sukhbir, a Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) driver, it seemed talent had skipped a generation. Paternal grandfather Chaudhary Badlu Ram, whose garlanded visage glares sternly at the celebrations, was a famous wrestler. He was also elected sarpanch of Mokhra village thrice.
Sakshi spent the first four years of her life living with the patriarch in the village. Mokhra is far from a paradise of equality, as a sex ratio of 822 (even lower than the state’s 879) would suggest. But, as Sakshi’s cousin Swati recalls, the little girl expected far more. “When my grandfather would take us around the village, everyone would respectfully call him sarpanch ji and pehelwan ji. I think Sakshi liked that and wanted to get the same respect,” says Swati.
Sakshi eventually returned to her family in Rohtak and around the time she moved to Class VI, grew determined to take up sport seriously. Sudesh took her to the Chhotu Ram Stadium. “Sakshi was insistent that she wanted to be a wrestler. In particular, she wanted to wear a singlet,” says Sudesh.
But there was a problem. Women’s singlets were particularly hard to find — Sudesh eventually found a cheap set in Delhi which Sakshi wasn’t particularly happy with. Then again, in 2005, women just didn’t wrestle in India — Guru Chandgiram had begun coaching women in the face of immense hostility in Delhi just a few years before.
For coach Ishwar Dahiya, who had immense passion but little of Chandgiram’s prestige, coaching in Rohtak’s Chhotu Ram Stadium was even more of a challenge. Now a white haired 60-year-old with a huge grin on his face, Dahiya recalls less pleasant times. “I was told that I was mad to try and have boys and girls wrestle together. Kya sher aur bakri ek ghat se peete hain? But I could never think that women were the equivalent of goats. And I was right, wasn’t I? Hasn’t Sakshi turned out to be a lion?” said Dahiya.
Age 12, Sakshi was only the fourth girl to begin wrestling in Rohtak, says Dahiya. But barbs would still be thrown. “There were times you heard unpleasant things. That this wasn’t a sport for women; that her physique would be damaged and she wouldn’t get married. But we did our best to make sure Sakshi never heard any of it. It helped that she was so focused on the sport. She never wanted to come to weddings and functions. And while it seems strange, it made sense because she would have to deal with relatives who weren’t supportive,” says Sudesh.
Sukhbir made sure Sakshi only returned to Mokhra on her terms. “I only took her back when she began winning medals at the international stage. Once you become successful, all the gossip is worthless,” he says. “More than anything, you have to give credit to her mother. If Sakshi had to get up for practice in the morning, maasi would get up along with her and take her to the stadium. She would then buy fresh fruit and nuts and make a shake out of it just so that Sakshi would get her protein as soon as she finished her training,” says Sonia, another cousin.
As their daughter’s career progressed, relatives say, Sudesh convinced the family to sell their home to move to a locality near the Chhotu Ram stadium. Sakshi, though, has repaid her family manifold. A year after she started wrestling, her biggest prize was a cream-and-brown water camper for winning a district schools competition. By the time she won the Olympic bronze, she had pocketed medals at the Asian and Commonwealth championships, and the Commonwealth Games. And long before she broke India’s drought at Rio, she has begun to change mindsets as well.
“In the past, when people would criticise her, I would snap and say, ‘what’s your problem, she is doing what she wants to do’. And now, the same people are sending their own daughters to train in wrestling. It’s a good sign,” says Sachin.
Sachin admits that he has a bit of a selfish interest in his sister’s success. “When people come to my franchise, a number of them know that I am the brother of international wrestler Sakshi Malik. Now that she is an Olympic medalist, it’s only going to be even better,” he says.